EVER since the death of his hero Les Sealey, the No 43 has sat proudly on the back of Stephen Bywater’s shirt.
The former Manchester United and Blackpool goalkeeper was Bywater’s coach at West Ham United when he died of a heart attack in 2001.
This afternoon, Bywater lines up for Sheffield Wednesday at Blackpool in the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Memories of his mentor are never far away and today’s game will only bring even more flooding back.
The oldest Cup competition in the world gave Sealey one of the greatest moments of his career.
He was plunged into the spotlight after United manager Sir Alex Ferguson dropped first choice Jim Leighton for the 1990 FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace and his performance helped United to a 1-0 victory.
It also gave Ferguson his first major trophy as the club’s manager and the rest, as they say, is history.
Bywater, who quit Derby County at the start of this month to sign a deal until the end of the season with the Owls, has yet to achieve anything in the FA Cup.
He does not recall a single victory as a player with 11 different clubs but won the FA Youth Cup as a teenager with the Hammers.
Now 30, he would love to go further in the competition but, equally, knows that winning promotion to the Championship this season is more important for the Owls.
Bywater, poignantly, believes that Sealey – who was 43 when he died – is still guiding his way in the game.
“I don’t think there is a day goes by without me thinking of Les,” he reflects. “But I know he is still watching over me.
“When I moved to West Ham from Rochdale, I was only 16, I was living on my own, and Les looked after me. He took me to training, he taught me all the basics of goalkeeping, and he even used to feed me. Basically, he treated me like his own son.
“I will never forget that – which is why I will wear the No 43 for the rest of my career. He is a legend in the world of goalkeeping and it’s a shame that he died so young.”
The eccentric nature of Sealey’s personality has probably rubbed off on his protege.
Bywater is definitely not a stereotypical professional footballer and this soon becomes apparent during interviews.
He once spelt out an offensive word live on Sky Sports and hit the headlines two years ago following a spat with his neighbours involving a horse box and a blow-up doll.
A fitness fanatic, he gets to work over two hours before the rest of his team-mates to practice yoga.
Away from football, he enjoys ‘play fighting’ with his mates, mixed martial arts, and once admitted that he wanted to be a cage fighter!
Nowadays, however, Bywater admits it may be too late for a career in cage fighting but still boasts that he is the ‘fittest goalkeeper on the planet.’
“When I moved to Derby, I told a reporter that, if I wasn’t playing football, I would probably be a cage fighter. But that was 10 years ago and I am probably a bit too old for that now,” he laughed.
“But I love physical contact with my mates and we are always play fighting. I see it is a a bit of an art form. I’ve been to see the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) in Vegas, Manchester and Birmingham and I get a real buzz from a one to one, man to man, it’s the most raw thing you can do.”
Anyone who clocked Bywater watching Strictly Come Dancing Live at Nottingham Arena this week will probably be surprised by what they have just read. However, Bywater was only there supporting former Derby team-mate Robbie Savage and has no desire to get involved.
A quick trip to the Tower Ballroom after today’s game at Bloomfield Road? Not likely!
“Ballroom dancing? No thanks. Not unless I can throw a punch or two and use some ankle locks. And I’m not into Tu-Tus!” he says. “I just went along to give Robbie a bit of support.
“I don’t have any friends in football – just associates – but he’s not in football now so he is a friend. It was a good night, to be fair. A good show. I will stick to yoga but I could show him a few moves on the dance floor.”
Bywater initially joined the Owls on loan in September but missed two games in December before his move became permanent. His absence opened the door for Nicky Weaver to return to the side for five games after knee surgery but he was dropped by manager Gary Megson in midweek at Scunthorpe United.
“It was a nice surprise to be recalled and I enjoyed it,” says Bywater. “No matter what age you are, you want to play and if you don’t, you are disappointed. You work harder but you are professional enough to respect other people and do things right otherwise you mug yourself off in the long term.
“I don’t see myself as the ‘Number 1’, or the ‘Number 3’, or the ‘Number 9’,” he continued. “I just see myself as part of the squad. I am a player and if the gaffer picks me, I’m going to put my neck on the line to stop that ball going in the goal.”
Today’s opponents Blackpool are a Championship club pushing for an immediate return to the Premier League after relegation last season.
They have a long list of players with top-flight experience but Bywater pays no attention to reputations.
“I haven’t got a clue about Blackpool,” he admitted. “I know (Matthew) Gilkes plays in goal and they are in the league above us so they are going to have some quality. Kevin Phillips? Is he still there? I don’t know. They have some decent players but it’s the FA Cup and anything can happen.
“We can go there and we can turn them over if we go there with the right attitude. We are a good team, we are well-organised, and we don’t fear anyone. Hopefully, the weather will be decent. Every time I have been to Blackpool, there’s been a gale force wind blowing.”
Victory over Scunthorpe lifted the Owls back on level terms with both second-placed Huddersfield Town and third-placed Sheffield United in the fight for automatic promotion from League One.
Bywater is unsure what his future holds but insists that he wants to stay at Hillsborough next season. “Of course I want to stay. This is a massive club and if they say ‘jump’ I will say ‘how high?’ If there was an option to sign for a big club like Sheffield Wednesday, it is a no brainer.”
Even if his form dips, Bywater is confident that his fitness will not be an issue. “I’m the fittest goalkeeper on the planet. I’m the best, fitness-wise. I would put anyone to shame,” he said. “Bring them all on. Bring the Sheffield United goalies and I will teach them a lesson as well.
“I want to play until I am 40, don’t I? Or try. That’s why the yoga is so good. I am supple and strong. It’s like a religion. I get in early. I have a bath about 7am until half past then I do my yoga for about an hour. Then it’s upper bodies. I go outside do some training and then some weights.
“I have to get up anyway because I have got two kids at home,” he added. “ That’s a blessing – having two kids who keep me up. If not, I would probably just lay in bed.”